biblical literacy and the church

by Hennie Swart (Shofar Bible School)

If the trend in South Africa is in any way similar to that of the rest of the world, people are reading less (or at least reading fewer books). People may be reading more electronic media like Twitter, Facebook, or emails, which are by and large shorter forms of written communication, but longer forms are being neglected. Likewise, despite the average literacy levels worldwide being higher than ever before, Biblical literacy worldwide seems to be in declension.

This may be because the view of truth is currently experiential and relational, rather than propositional. That is to say people would rather consider a pithy saying of a friend on Facebook or a person that they follow on Twitter (all social and relational platforms), than struggle to examine an objective set of statements about truth. The Bible, of course, is also relational or experiential, but its claims of truth transcend a relational connection to that truth. It is true whether I relate to it or not!

Also, whereas the printed media was the primary medium of mass communication from the invention of the printing press until the invention of the television, the Western world especially has transitioned from a reading to an audio‐visual culture. This is due to the stimulating effect of the audio‐visual medium that mostly does not require sustained attention and thought. It’s just so much more convenient to watch a video clip on YouTube or a movie in the cinema than to read from a book, even the Bible. Before TV and internet people would often grab a book, often the Bible, when they were bored, but now they will more likely grab the remote, tablet, or smartphone when they’re bored.

Much of the church has, for various reasons, also moved away from a Bible reading culture. A colleague who visits many different churches recently remarked that, years ago, he often used to hear elders quote extensively from the Bible (usually the King James Version) from memory during prayer meetings and the like, whereas he hardly hears the Bible quoted at similar meetings nowadays. There are just so many places where the Bible used to be read or studied, but no longer is. Some the reasons may include:

  • Many Christian families no longer read the Bible together as part of their family devotions; in fact, often such family devotions no longer happen.
  • Many Christians would rather read a short devotional which includes only one or two verses from the Bible, some out of context, with a short inspirational story, than read the Bible itself. Few read the Bible systematically and with any real appreciation of context. Even many committed Christians have confessed to me that they hardly ever read books of the Bible as a whole, but rather read short portions in search of a daily spiritual titbit.
  • Small groups may cater to people’s need to belong relationally rather than include a sustained focus on the study of Scripture. Many small groups, which used to be Bible studies in years gone by, have started fellowshipping around things other than the Bible. Though the idea that there should be broad participation in a small group meeting, and that it should not be dominated by one person teaching from the Bible, is certainly correct (cf. 1 Corinthians 14), the point is that small group has become just another place where the Bible is not read or discussed.
  • Many non‐traditional or independent churches have completely removed the public reading of Scripture from their liturgy. Maybe we again need to hear again the apostle Paul’s instruction to his disciple, Timothy, to ‘devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture…’ (1 Timothy 4:13).
  • The emphasis of some of the modern church growth movements have moved from preaching on the applied meaning of Scripture to preaching that emphasizes contentious or personal topics itself. This shift has been brought around by the thought that the average person will come to church if it is personally applicable to them and perhaps even entertaining. Of course preaching that is boring or irrelevant is never good, but preaching must not be limited to personal relevance and entertainment. Good preaching explains the meaning of Scripture within context and therefore must model good Bible study methods and empower the listener to search the Scriptures for themselves.
  • Bible School teachings have often also been more topical rather than equipping students to read and understand the Bible for themselves. Of course defining the contents of a Bible School varies from one church group to another, but caution should be exercised that the outcome of a Bible School should include a robust ability of the student to interpret Scripture, not merely to know more about a particular topic.

The cumulative effect of the above‐mentioned has been a dramatic increase in Biblical illiteracy in the church. Whereas church leaders who enrolled for a Bible Survey course a few decades ago had usually read through the Bible multiple times, the tendency is that nowadays students who enrol for similar courses often have not read through the entire Bible. For the average church member the drive to learn the truth of Scripture for themselves has been replaced with receiving truth from secondary sources such as sermons and Christian media. This places both leaders and church members in a dangerous position to consistently and accurately discern and apply truth.

But if we believe the Bible is the one infallible source of God’s revelation to us, the indispensable source of His divine Self‐revelation, then we should once again establish a culture of Bible reading and study in our churches. We might also find that the very technology that often contributes to the problem also presents some useful solutions: Audio Bibles can be listened to from mobile phones or while driving, and there are good Bible Study apps which provide reading plans and daily reminders to read the Bible. I have also found that many Christians, though they are ill equipped to study the Bible, are eager to learn. The crux of the issue then is not necessarily technology or our current culture, but how eager we are to obey God’s Word. We can thoroughly study God’s Word without obeying it, but we cannot thoroughly obey God’s Word without studying it.

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